“It’s a little late for that sentiment. You’ve effectively ended any extracurricular activities, as you like to call it.” I know that despite Celia’s animosity or jealousy or whatever, she’s actually done Alayna a favor. There is a connection between her and me, and Celia’s right that our sex life is only hurting Alayna’s chances at remaining strong. I’ve known this for quite some time, yet I didn’t have the strength on my own to end things as I should.
This is for the best, as devastating as it is for me to live with.
Celia recognizes my disappointment. She crosses behind me and strokes a hand through the hair at my temple. “I’m sorry, Hudson. I really am. I probably shouldn’t have intervened as I did. I just know that you have faith that Alayna will come out of this strong, and with the road you had chosen, that was simply not going to happen.” She leans down and hugs me from behind, her mouth at my ear. “I did it for you. To give your thesis a fighting chance. Forgive me?”
I tense under her touch. We’ve had physical contact over the years, growing comfortable enough with each other to kiss and embrace when scenarios called for it. But now, her arms around me feel like shackles. She has a hold on me, I realize. And I have no idea how to break free.
Pushing out of her embrace, I stand and spin to her. “Don’t pretend this was for me, Celia. You forget I know you. You wanted to make the game more challenging—well, you did just that. Good luck with the rest of this going the way you’d like.”
I head to the door, but she calls after me. “The symphony on Thursday? It’s still our next outing, correct?”
I’m still committed to my vow to keep Alayna from Celia, but an outright refusal will only goad my partner. “I’ll see what I can do, but I’m making no promises.”
Later, in the limo as Jordan drives me home to change before my flight, I have my first taste of loneliness. I miss Alayna. I want to see her, to touch her, to hear her voice.
But mixed in with the loneliness is a measure of affection. It’s not anything I understand. All I know is that I care more for Alayna’s well-being in the moment than for mine. So when her text arrives, I ignore my impulse to respond. I need to help her let me go.
I read it one more time. “Thanks for the coffee. And for everything else.”
And then I push delete.
The next few days are painful. I work punishing hours, throwing all my energy into solving the problems at Plexis. But the nights are long and lonely. Neither alcohol nor jerking off relieves any of my need. If I were a subject in one of my own experiments, my point would be proved—affinity toward another person makes one flawed. Still, as miserable and weak as I am now, I wouldn’t give up the moments I’ve shared with Alayna.
I’d planned to fly directly to Chicago on Wednesday for another meeting regarding Plexis on Thursday morning, but I come back to Manhattan late Tuesday night instead. It’s harder to fight my desire to run to her, but I find comfort being in the same city. I spend the night in the loft, and thoughts of our time together accompany me as I drift in and out of a fitful sleep.
First thing Wednesday morning, I receive a report from Jordan. He’s still driving Alayna and, more importantly, still reporting back to me. His report is somewhat banal, except that I note Alayna’s stopped by Pierce Industries the last two days. Her behavior might be written off as meaningless to someone else, but I understand things about her that others don’t. I wonder if her visits are an indication of falling into past habits.
The idea worries me. It’s a minor win for Celia.
At the same time, I’m blanketed by a warm tingle that is almost comforting. It’s a shitty thing to take joy in, but I’m not triumphing in her setbacks. I’m hopeful, instead, that her actions indicate something else—that I mean something to her. That I’m on her mind. That she feels some affection toward me as I feel toward her.
Though why it matters is beyond me.
It’s after an impromptu lunch meeting with one of my advertising teams that I see her. I’ve walked my associates to the elevator, one of the men finishing a joke as the doors open.
And there she is.
“Alayna.” Even saying her name is a treat I’ve denied myself. I’m dizzy at the sight of her, but I’m aware of where we are and of what our relationship is, and I manage to keep much of my surprise to myself.
She’s frozen, a deer-in-the-headlights expression written all over her face. I hold a hand out to her. She takes it and I’m elated. How simple to be thrilled at only the touch of a woman’s hand? It’s ridiculous and wonderful all at once.
I turn to my team. “Gentlemen, my girlfriend has decided to surprise me with a visit to my office.”
The men make some wisecrack that I miss because I’m completely absorbed in her smile. Completely absorbed in her.
The next few minutes are a blur, but finally, I have Alayna with me in my office. Alone.
Nothing about this is a good idea.
With great strength, I drop my hand and distance myself from her physically and figuratively. “What are you doing here, Alayna?”
She doesn’t look at me. That helps.
As she works out her answer, I study her. I understand her, I think. The feeling of wanting to be near someone and knowing you shouldn’t be. Yeah, I get that.
After a while, she hugs her arms around herself and takes a deep breath. “I, uh, I wanted to see if you were back.”
This is difficult for her. It’s difficult for me too. “I got back late last night. You could have called. Or texted.” It’s impressive that I can seemingly remain so cold about her presence when in reality I’m spinning with elation.
“You don’t answer my texts.”
“I didn’t answer one text.”
A tear runs down her cheek. “It was my only text.”
Our eyes remain locked, and I find myself slipping into examination mode. I’m collecting data—the vulnerability in the way she stands, the frailty in her voice, the weight of her tears. But unlike the other times I’ve studied women in the same position, I’m moved by her. I can’t stay hard with her, even if it’s what’s best for both of us, and I falter. “I didn’t realize it was important to you. I’ll make a better effort to respond in the future.”
I’ve surprised her as much as myself, and I fear my softening has done irreparable damage. I straighten, assuming a commanding position. “But you can’t just come here like this. How do you think it looks to have my girlfriend wandering around the lobby, riding the elevators when I’m not even in town?”